Fight for your rights? The problem with “copies.”

Today The New York Times published this story about “backlist titles,” books that were once top sellers in paper format, which may or may not be reissued today as ebooks. As publishers work to reformat and reissue such titles, the question of who owns the rights to reproduce these titles – authors or publishers – explodes back onto the scene. The fact that a change in format (from paper to electronic books for example) compels a new round of copyright battling is interesting, raising many questions: is the electronic version a separate “work” with a separate copyright as opposed to the paper version, or is the electronic version merely a copy of the paper work, which therefore puts the original copyright into play?

Behind this copyright question, a deeper question lurks: what is a copy? Obviously the copy is not identical to the original; a copy must be different, a unique object. But on the other hand, how different is too different? At what point does an object become so different from the original that it no longer counts as a copy? This ontological question about copies (or simulacra) and originals (a la Benjamin and Baudrillard), difference and repetition (a la Deleuze), etc., may seem cute or sophistic, but it could be a real thorn in the side of more practical, legal, ethical and political debates about the right to make copies. While I’m on a roll referencing European philosophers: might this problem of the copy be the Derridean lynch-pin which, when pulled out, will cause the whole copyright house of cards to deconstruct (self-destruct)? If we can’t define what a copy is, how can we tell if a copy has been made? How can we tell if an illegal copy has been made, or profited from?

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One Comment on “Fight for your rights? The problem with “copies.””

  1. P Says:

    Having trouble putting together a cohesive response at the moment, but here are a few thoughts, partially held together by theme…

    To some extent, the question of whether converting a text from one medium to another can be a question of what sort of access once can reasonably expect from a piece of media that one has legally obtained, as in the case of visually impaired people who want their Kindle to read an ebook out loud.

    If one buys the text in visual format, does one have the right to convert it to audio? If you buy a book, do you have the right to read it out loud to somebody who can’t read?

    The fact that the former question seems reasonable while the latter seems absurd makes it clear how the transition between audio and digital technologies seems to disrupt conventional understandings of fair use. A person reading a book out loud is (one would generally say) using that object, but when a Kindle uses a text-to-speech protocol, does the water become murkier? Maybe.

    Your point about the ontological question of the copy being central is well taken. It is in fact necessary to make a determination (or several) on the nature of copies in order to make copyright legislation.

    In fact, copyright law addresses (though perhaps incompletely) the question of what constitutes a copy by stating that a copyrighted work must represent some sort of original creative effort on the part of the maker. Of course, what consists of original creative work can still be up for grabs. Yes, there is some artistry that can go into creating an audio book, but seems safe to say that the text-to-speech function on a Kindle doesn’t qualify. On this basis, it seems like the audiobook copyright holders have a legal toehold, if not an ethical argument (assuming one can discount their claims to be representing the interests of authors), to say that converting text to audio constitutes making a copy.

    On the other hand, maybe it’s possible to cut through this confusion with the MacKaye argument – media companies can only sell the things that they make, not regulate what people do with those things after they’ve bought them.


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